Slaves had key stop to freedom in Bradenton. It’s drawing international attention.
by MARK YOUNG, BRADENTON.COM | March 24, 2018 10:25 AM
Mineral Springs may be getting a new historical designation as the National Parks Service considers it a possible destination of the Underground Railroad. Trudy Williams of Reflections of Manatee stands with Daphney Towns, organizer of the Back to Angola Festival at the capped spring. Tiffany Tompkins email@example.com
[BRADENTON, FL] There’s a reason a sign at the Manatee Mineral Spring Park, home to some of the area’s first settlers and a key stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves seeking freedom, declares: “History Flows Through This Spring.” The connection to the Underground Railroad is only the latest in a long string of the park’s dip into history, and why many are now calling the property the single most important piece of land in Manatee County. And it’s getting national attention.
The park’s connection to the Underground Railroad — a network of safe houses and routes created by abolitionists to help escaped slaves — is drawing keen interest from the National Parks Service. With evidence mounting of its historical significance, this neighborhood park in Old Manatee may be added to the national parks’ list of more than 600 locations considered part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
“It’s the single most important piece of ground in Manatee County,” said Trudy Williams, co-founder of Reflections of Manatee, a nonprofit historic preservation organization.
The site’s historical significance may flow as far as the Bahamas, where many escaped slaves settled after first calling Bradenton and Mineral Springs their home from around 1800 to 1821. That has sparked great interest in the Bahamas, and a 40-person Bahamian delegation, including Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, is expected to make the trip to Bradenton soon.
Historian Judy Wellman, a part-time Bradenton resident, has become captivated with the history of the park at 1312 Second Ave. E. “People escaped from slavery fled to the area around Bradenton, which an Andrew Jackson aide called, ‘the last rallying spot of the disaffected Negros and Indians,’” Wellman said. “The story of that community is connected to the British, Americans, Spanish and Indians during the War of 1812, the destruction of Fort Negro and the Battle of the Suwanee.”
At least 700 slaves escaped to the area which would someday be Manatee County, many of whom are believed to have fled Georgia, Alabama and north Florida. The growing village came to be known as New Angola.
Andrew Jackson destroyed Fort Negro, near Apalachicola, in 1816, scattering the slaves, with some making their way to Bradenton and others joining the Seminoles near the Suwanee River. The escaped slaves and their Seminole allies were defeated again at the Battle of the Suwanee, and the remaining escaped slaves were once again on the run, with many joining New Angola at Mineral Springs. But they were confronted again by an army of Creek Indians led by William McIntosh, likely under orders from Jackson.
Three hundred people were reportedly captured at New Angola. The other slaves either fled inland to rejoin the Seminole Tribe, or kept going south to Miami and eventually to the Bahamas, where they settled for good.
Williams has always claimed the park was the site of New Angola. In doing their research, Reflections found several mentions of the settlement, but still wanted archeological evidence. In 2007, Witten Technologies volunteered to scan the site to show where to dig — and where not to. “In the end, we only had to dig a few pits,” Williams said. Artifacts surfaced that were specific to the escaped slaves, particularly a certain style of knife and pipe, and were dated by several renowned archaeologists to around 1800 to 1820 — the time when escaped slaves made Mineral Springs their home.
The land surrounding the valuable freshwater spring meant life to early Native Americans. Spaniards never settled the area, but the valuable spring was mapped by Spanish explorers just in case. That spring would eventually become part of Bradenton’s founding, and lent to the growth of Southwest Florida as a whole.
Manatee Mineral Springs is often associated with Bradenton founders Josiah Gates and Ezekiel Glazier, the first white settlers in the 1840s — two decades after New Angola. Fresh water was life, and Mineral Spring was a 4-foot-wide fresh spring with a white sandy bottom, noted by Indians and white settlers alike for having a healing quality. The spring would later serve Branch Fort in the 1850s, which was used to protect nearby settlers during the Seminole raid of 1856. During that encampment, Manatee County’s eventual first homegrown doctor, Furman Chairs Whitaker, was born.
The area also has a historical link to the Civil War, though no known battles occurred there. At the beginning of the war, the spring and surrounding property was owned by Capt. John Curry. He supplied cattle and other provisions to the Confederacy and sold one of his schooners for several successful attempts around the Union blockade.
Sheri Jackson, National Park Service Southeast regional manager and director of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, said the park has all of the qualifications to become a Network to Freedom member.
“We look for places where people escaped to, and we look at it as a resistance to enslavement,” Jackson said. “That’s how we are looking at this site. A lot of times when we talk about slavery, we look at where those Africans resisted, and this place represents that. We know of places all over where people escaped to as individuals. But to have an entire community of resisters, we wanted to look and hear more of the story.”
Jackson visited Bradenton in January with other representatives. They walked away extremely excited.
“We know this site is important and has a story to tell,” Jackson said. “This is a wonderful story for Florida, because you don’t think about resistance to slavery in Florida because most escaped to the north. We look at the route that these individuals took, it began in north Florida and then eventually to Bradenton and then to Miami and eventually to the Bahamas.”
Daphney Towns is the president of Oaktree Community Outreach Inc., which sponsors faith and cultural-related festivals pertaining to her Bahamian ancestry. A Bradenton resident since 1992, Towns only learned of Minerals Springs’ link to the Bahamas last year. After she shared the news with her native country, plans began for the Bahamian delegation’s visit. Towns is planning a Bahamian cultural festival on the site July 13-15. Her application is currently going through the city process, but Reflections of Manatee has offered an alternative site just in case.
“I saw the plaque that speaks about where the slaves ended up, and it's Andros Island where my mother comes from. So this hit really close to home,” Towns said. “I took all this information back to the Bahamas and the prime minister and cultural minister and everyone got really excited and this festival is taking on a life of its own. The festival will celebrate the past, present and future for Bahamians and Americans, because both histories are here.”
Williams is currently working the application to have the site designated by the NPS as a member of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. She expects the application to be submitted this summer and to have a possible answer by the end of the year. “There is a lot of excitement about this site, and I expect once we receive the application, it will be received very positively,” said the Parks Service’s Jackson.